Why the “Rye”? It’s a long story…

The Hidden Political History of Southern Naming Traditions

I share a middle name with my grandfather and my uncle, James Rye Jewell, Sr., and James Rye Jewell, Jr., a retired commander of the U.S. Navy. My cousin Blythe, Jr.’s daughter, has my Dad’s middle name, so it was only fair that the name swapping tradition continue.

Yet there is an ironic symbolism in my middle name with a connection to the subject of my first book. As I child, I was unaware of its origins in Tennessee politics. At the same time, it is symbolic that though I grew up with little connection to the name’s 1914 origin, I nonetheless gravitated toward the era and issues that prompted its emergence as a family name. The pattern of the invisibility yet simultaneous presence of the past is at the heart of historical inquiry and structures the research questions tasked in Dollars for Dixie.

My grandfather was born in September 1914 in Lebanon, in Wilson County, Tennessee, some thirty miles east of Nashville. That fall, Tom C. Rye won election as Tennessee’s governor. A Democrat from Paris, Tennessee, 100 miles northwest of Nashville, Rye won the nomination after prosecuting bootleggers as Henry County attorney general.

Rye was a reformer and a prohibitionist — ironic given his last name. Running as a “law and order” candidate, he capitalized on prominent Tennessee Democrats’ desire to unite the party, drawing support in the 1914 election from the powerful, Memphis-based Edward H. Crump machine despite his lack of affiliation with party factions.[1] Still, his nomination marked the relative reunification of the party after it divided in the previous decade, leading to the election of a Republican, Ben W. Hooper, for two terms.[2] As southern members of Congress benefited from Virginian Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1912, the taste for reform in Dixie likely helped Rye assume statewide leadership.[3] Moreover, as the southern electorate narrowed and whitened after Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, southern voters were more willing to support reform that would be directed toward largely white communities and interests.

Reform and war-related economic development dominated Rye’s four years in office. As governor, Rye balanced competing interests in state highway building, but also encouraged business progressive policies that would encourage the development of the Alcoa plant at Maryville, taking advantage of the expansion in the industry during World War I.[4] Despite having received support from Crump and Memphis voters, Rye’s strong prohibitionist sentiments, which expanded the efforts of the previous Republican governor, led him to go after the Memphis leader for not enforcing the closure of saloons, resulting in the removal of Crump from office.[5] Rye signed the Elkins Ouster Bill, allowing the state to remove public officials who refused to enforce standing laws. Rye’s actions seemed to stem more from his prohibitionist sentiments than his desire to break up the powerful Crump machine, but the effect was to throw Memphis politics into a state of disarray and thwart Crump’s political ambitions, though he regained control of city politics by 1918.[6] The Jim Crow system in the state persisted and solidified under established legal structures during these years.[7] Along with maintaining the color line, the prohibition issue blurred the lines of party and intra-party factionalism in the state, revealing the power of reform in the state during these years.

The dominance of reform and prohibition politics in Tennessee could have been the reason my grandfather gained the name. My great grandmother, Myrtle Orrand Jewell, was a devout Christian and supported prohibition. None of her other children have names of prominent politicians, which leads me to think that there was something about this governor and the timing of James’s birth that prompted the name. But the true reasons behind the name remain a bit murky. My mother once asked my grandfather where his name had come from, and he replied, “I dunno, the governor,” offering few additional details. Given that my grandfather was born in September 1914, and elections take place in November, was the decision made at his birth to select the name of the Democratic candidate, knowing he would become governor? Or was it selected later, after the election, when they filed for a birth certificate — a process perhaps delayed because of their rural location? (Perhaps I need to dig a bit deeper here into electoral results, campaigning, and the dates of this election, using resources unavailable to me remotely, from Massachusetts). Or was this reflective of larger naming traditions in middle Tennessee, or the South more generally, hearkening back to naming kids after certain generals or other prominent figures? Or does the name, and its subsequent passage along to me, stem from the power of the prohibitionism in Tennessee politics in 1914?

The subjects of my book, mill owners and industrial boosters, would likely have supported the governorship of Tom Rye, though many moved within state Republican circles (many industrialists voted for Taft in 1908 before becoming Hoovercrats in 1928, if not already registered Republicans). Most linked mill building and economic development to social reform, and many supported prohibition. Yet that generation of the Jewell family were no mill owners. My great grandfather moved to town of Lebanon in 1906 to work in a pencil factory. Eventually, he purchased his own mobile sawmill, which my grandfather would help operate at age six. My great grandfather eventually lost his hand in that sawmill and became a janitor at the local high school. My grandfather would leave high school in the depths of the Depression to work in the spinning room at the Lebanon Woolen Mill before becoming part owner of and mechanic at an auto shop after World War II. James Rye Jewell, Sr., was a lifelong Roosevelt Democrat. Perhaps class dynamics and economic development played little role in the story of the name, trumped by the politics of reform in this era, as with the state’s politics overall.

When it came time to publish, I never questioned using my full name. I like the cadence of the three words together. It looks good on a book cover. Yet its use as a family name, imbued with meanings related more to kinship and familial reciprocity than southern identity and Tennessee politics of reform, reveal how the past remains yet is also constantly being reused and reinterpreted. Tennessee’s business progressives and industrial boosters perplexed me, given that their role in shaping the state and region has largely been lost to popular memory.

Much like my middle name, the complexities and sentiments of a previous generation of industrialists bear little weight on the Sunbelt politics and global flows of capital that shape the region today. Still, their effect remains. Historians, looking closely and reconstructing timelines and lineages, can uncover deep continuities that underlie the transformation and persistence of language. In the case of my book, the idea of free enterprise and the South, and the promotion of the South as an “economic hope” of the nation, have roots in the lost politics of reformers in the early twentieth century. As for my name, it will always mark my origins, both familial and scholarly.


[1] G. Wayne Dowdy, Mayor Crump Don’t Like It: Machine Politics in Memphis, p. 22.

[2] Dewey Grantham, The Life and Death of the Solid South, p. 44.

[3] Grantham, p. 67.

[4] Tammy Ingram, Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, p. 51; Margaret I. Phillips, The Governors of Tennessee, p. 130.

[5] Dowdy, p. 23-24.

[6] Dowdy, p. 27.

[7] The legal structure of Jim Crow was already largely established in Tennessee by 1914. State statutes segregated streetcars and other public facilities in the early years of the century, followed by legal segregation of schools in the 1920s.

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